Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Cult of Art's Last Stand

Jacques Barzun's death brought to mind his Mellon Lectures, The Use and Abuse of Art.  There he explains that art cannot function as religion.  Art is unable “to reach the divine center from which redemption comes, and is punished for its presumption… Art cannot be ‘a way of life’ because… it lacks a theology or even a popular mythology of its own; it has no bible, no ritual, and no sanctions for behavior. We are called to enjoy but we are not enjoined.”  Indeed, a huge swath of art since 1960 might be explained as the relentless insistence that art cannot save. 

Strangely enough, there might be one place that didn't get the message - a place where art continues to perform, or at least approximate the pseudo-religious function assigned to it by Romanticism.  An essay by Roger Lundin written nearly thirty years ago explains that the evangelical attitude to the arts is “the product of a union of specifically American attitudes toward social tradition, romantic aesthetic notions, and fundamentalist view of culture."  Hence the curious correspondence between evangelicals and Romantic notions of artistic creation:
Because of its skepticism about the relevance of history and the historical process, because of its desire to assign to art a special separate status, and because of its sense of alienation about both unadorned nature and mass culture, romantic theory has offered an appealing sight to those of us whose aesthetic lenses have been ground, whether we appreciate it or not, in the shop of American fundamentalism (“Offspring of an Odd Union: Evangelical Attitudes Towards the Arts,” in Fundamentalism and Modern America, p. 138).
Perhaps this is why holy hipsters, or "Christian creatives," have arisen as a separate ecclesial class, even starting their own churches (or thinking they can save the ones in which they remain).  I like to think that at the evangelical art department where I teach we avoid this particular pitfall, but just to be sure, here's an idea for the next Christian art conference:  A series of dazzling speakers telling us not what art can do... but what it can't.